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Ainge design set to measure

He knows what he wants. He just has no idea what he has.

On the eve of the 2004-05 NBA season, the man in charge of putting together the Boston Celtics is every bit as eager as the most ardent fan to see what his latest efforts have wrought.

"I'm anxious to see how it all works,'' Danny Ainge said yesterday.

The team that takes the FleetCenter floor tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers has Ainge's DNA all over it. The coach is his guy. Three of the starters are his guys, as are all but one of the seven reserves. All three guys on the injured list are Ainge guys.

He has tried to construct a team based on three criteria: talent (which always helps), toughness, and self-motivation. He wants a team that will instigate, that has an edge, and, needless to say, that will win more than it loses.

"One thing we need to get better at,'' he said, "is fighting through adversity. The adversity of a game. The adversity of a season. That was my biggest frustration with last year's team. I was not happy with that.

"I see a big improvement already this year. Of course, we haven't lost yet.''

That's true. Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to get a read on this team. How can we know for sure Raef LaFrentz's surgically repaired right knee will hold up? How can we know for sure 36-year-old Gary Payton will be the experienced Gray Eminence Ainge desperately wants him to be? How can we know for sure Ricky Davis isn't going to be a royal pain in the you-know-what, that Paul Pierce is going to trust his teammates, that the very young bench is going to be productive?

Most teams begin a season with a lot of question marks. You think Scott Skiles has any idea what he's going to get from Eddy Curry or Tyson Chandler? You think Mark Cuban isn't keeping his fingers crossed that he didn't overpay Erick Dampier and lowball Steve Nash? You think anyone in Los Angeles can get a read on the Lakers, other than that Kobe Bryant will do what he wants?

Ainge feels exponentially more comfortable with this team than he did with last year's. In part, it's because of the presence of Doc Rivers, who is Ainge's hand-picked (and well-compensated) choice to coach the team. In part, it's because there's less confusion in management and ownership circles. He said a lot of things went awry last season, but put the blame on no one.

He was an everyday presence last year. He has been conspicuous by his absence this year.

"I really feel that the job, as I viewed it being, started with the hiring of Doc Rivers,'' said Ainge. "Last year was just bizarre. Very bizarre.''

He had a very big role in the bizarreness. But he never has wavered in making the case for the deals he made. The only uncertainty is whether the team he now has is any better than the team he inherited in May 2002. He would say, unequivocally, that it is, and cite the youth, athleticism, and overall talent base. Detractors would point out that the Celtics went from 44 wins to 36 wins and are generally seen as a team likely to hover around .500 this season.

That's progress?

"People are afraid of change,'' said Ainge, who most definitely is not afraid of change. "And they can be uncomfortable in a situation where job security is not high.''

His job security, he insists, is not an issue. He still has not accepted an extension, although one was offered last season. He has two years left on his contract. Rivers was signed to a four-year deal.

``To me,'' said Ainge, ``it's not an issue. I plan on being here a lot longer. We've got a lot more work to do.''

Ainge and Rivers are putting a lot of faith in Payton, who, according to the two Celtics movers and shakers, has been a hoop version of Nelson Mandela up to this point. While there's pressure on Ainge to have the Payton transaction work, there's also an onus on Payton to make it work, lest he have two teams in as many years eager to dump him.

As Kevin McHale noted recently, ``That Payton thing can either be really, really good or really, really bad.''

Ainge said he and Payton go back a long way. They played against each other. Ainge coached against Payton. Said Ainge of Payton, ``He has been everything we thought he'd be in terms of attitude, toughness, ability to defend, sharing the ball, and elevating the toughness of the team.''

It's all words and promises up to now. Tonight, the games count and the results show.

The bottom line is that Ainge has put his faith in Rivers while supplying his new coach with a strange amalgam of youth and experience. Some of the key guys are on one-year deals. It can all be a recipe for disaster, or it can be the start of something good. Count me as being skeptical of the changes and looking for Ainge to make more moves by February. If he has shown one constant to date, it's this: If he doesn't think it's working, he isn't the least bit shy about trying to fix it.

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